The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
8 The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
10 They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
11 By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.
13 Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
14 May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in the church about the world’s waning interest or respect for Biblical beliefs and values, and about our diminishing influence in the world. But a recent survey of self-identified Christians revealed that sixty percent of us could not name five of the Ten Commandments, 80% thought that the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves,” and 12% thought that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. And as one researcher put it, “If you can’t name the Ten Commandments, how likely are you to obey them?” Which brings us to the first question in the outline: What is the goal of the Christian Education that we are celebrating?
The Bible itself tells us the value of learning the Bible, especially here in Psalm 19. Learning the content of the Word is important, all the more so in this day of increasing biblical illiteracy and disinterest. But Psalm 19 has as much to do with the conduct and the character of the student of God’s Word, as it does the content of the Word. The goal of Christian Education in Psalm 19 is the formation of persons, the shaping of souls, the crafting of biblical character, so that we become Psalm 19 kinds of people. People who not only know the Bible but who live it with the kind of loving reverence and joyful wonder for God, for God’s Word and for God’s world, that this Psalm expresses.
Psalm 19 sums up all the qualities of such people in verse 9, with the phrase, “the fear of the Lord.” That’s the answer to question 2 in the sermon outline. The goal of Christian Education is the formation of Christian character, in particular, the fear of the Lord.
“The fear of the Lord,” or “The fear of God,” is not a phrase we hear very often anymore, certainly not in our therapeutic age. Today we are more likely to ask, “What do I want God to do for me?” than, “What does God want me to do?” We are more likely today to ask how God can help me adapt to this life, than How does God want to adapt me for the life to come? And yes, we may carry memories of how “the fear of God” has been abused and misused by authoritarian leaders to make us afraid of them, to control us and enforce some code of conformity upon us, for their power over us, rather than for our empowerment. That kind of spiritual abuse has sometimes even led to other forms of abuse.
But that kind of fear has long been called, in Christian tradition, “servile fear,” a childish and selfish fear of pain or punishment. Menno Simons called it “bodily fear,” the fear of losing worldly, bodily pleasures and comforts, and the fear of suffering bodily or emotional harm or pain. Servile fear is the first kind of fear in question two, point 1 of the outline to today’s message. It’s servile because it only aims for the rewards that a hired servant or a fearful slave would consider: getting goodies, and avoiding pain, loss, or shame. Religious leaders who exploit and enforce that kind of fear are not interested in our growth and maturity.
But God is. God is raising sons and daughters to maturity in faith, hope and love. Our maturity is measured by how well and how willingly we handle the riches and the responsibilities of love that God would give us, as joint heirs with Jesus. Growing up and taking on such riches and responsibility is scary, too, but that’s a different kind of fear, the second kind in question 2 of the outline: what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord,” or what saints and our spiritual ancestors, like Menno Simons, St. Augustine and Martin Luther called, “holy fear.”
Holy fear is not the fear of what the Holy One might do to us, like striking us with lightning for saying a bad word. Holy fear is the fear of what we might do to all that is most holy, because we know our own vulnerability and our own fallibility, how easily we can fool ourselves, how readily we can take all that is sacred for granted. Holy fear is not so much the fear of punishment for doing bad things, but the fear of how we might punish ourselves by becoming used to the evil that we’re doing. It’s the sobering realization of how evil is its own punishment.
Maybe “fear” is not the best word, since we associate it now with terror and dread. Rather, it’s more like that tender, grateful and awe-struck but somewhat nervous awakening, like what parents feel when suddenly something so precious as a child is conceived and then born into their lives. I remember holding our first daughter, just minutes after her birth, and thinking to myself, “You know, this would be as good a time as any to start growing up.” That kind of “fear” or care, or reverence or awe and wonder, moves us toward maturity, because, having tasted and seen that the Lord is good, we don’t want to settle finally for anything less than God and God’s best. The more I try to define this holy fear, or the fear of the Lord, the more I think I’m just describing an aspect of love. So again, the two kinds of fear in the outline are “servile fear” and “holy fear.”
In answer to question 3, What the second kind of fear does for us, the holy fear, or “fear of the Lord”: First off, this healthy, holy fear illuminates the worth and wonder of God’s Word. Without such a stance of gratitude, humility, reverence and submission to God and care toward life, we risk approaching the Scriptures the way a friend of mine approached the Grand Canyon for the first time: “We came all this way just to see a big hole in the ground?” She had never cared much for learning geology, climate or history, in her school years, either.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best for me, when he wrote, in God In Search of Man: “It is the sense of the holy that perceives the presence of God in the Bible….The divine quality of the Bible is not on display, it is not apparent to an inane, fatuous mind; just as the divine in the universe is not obvious to the debaucher. When we turn to the Bible with an empty spirt, moved by intellectual vanity, striving to show our superiority to the text; or as barren souls who go sight-seeing to the words of the prophets, we discover the shells but miss the core….To be able to encounter the spirit within the words, we must learn to crave for an affinity with the pathos [meaning, the tender, caring passion] of God.”
Or as Macrina Wiederkehr said, in her book, A Tree Full of Angels, “Always read the Scriptures with a heart ready to repent.” Not that we should read the Bible only to feel bad about ourselves, or guilty. It’s a love letter! Read it with the sober awareness that, in our intimate communion with God, only one of us ever usually needs to change his mind. So, again, coming to the Bible with this holy fear, or “the fear of the Lord,” illuminates the worth and wonders of God’s Word, and reveals the treasures in it that we would otherwise miss.
A second benefit of this awe and tender, reverent fear, is that we also then see better the wonder and the worth of God’s World, of all Creation. For both God’s Word and God’s world have things to teach us about God. But we won’t hear them if we are full of ourselves, and believe that we are the measure of all things. Then we will see Creation only as a stockpile of raw resources to manipulate and exploit for our immediate, short-term pleasure. What’s then to keep us from treating each other that way?
But Psalm 19 begins with words of delight and praise for God’s Creation, especially for the heavens, the stars and the sun. It shows how our caring, grateful and awe-struck appreciation for God and God’s Word can flow over into a similarly humble stance toward all of God’s gifts, including ourselves. That’s how the Psalmist could exclaim, in Psalm 139, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
In Northwest Ohio, there’s a wonderful example of how this holy fear of God spills over into other relationships. There, a Mennonite couple from France, Pierre and Catherine Goll, settled, in the 1830’s. In his first letter back to France, Pierre waxed poetically about the trees he encountered, incredibly tall, stately beech, oak, chestnut, walnut and sugar maples, so thick around it took several men touching fingertips together to circle them, with no branches until 70 or 80 feet up, interlocking like the roof of a cathedral, with a dim green light filtering through the leaves down to the forest floor, where there was very little brush or vegetation. Where they came from in France, no trees like that had been seen for centuries. Pierre’s brother was a wooden shoe maker. To convince him to come, Pierre wrote that just one of these trees would put his brother in business for life making shoes.
When I read Pierre Goll’s first letter, I thought, “Too bad: such trees no longer exist in Ohio; everything there is either corn, soybeans, strip malls, suburbs, superhighways, or city. But I was wrong, I’m glad to say. Pierre Goll and his family were so awed, entranced, appreciative, respectful and restrained in the face of such natural majesty, that they cleared or drained only what land they needed to live off. The rest they cherished and protected. And now there is a state nature preserve, where the original timber still stands like an island of tall trees in a sea of corn and soybeans. Walking among them is like being inside a cool, sacred sanctuary, in which you want to speak in a whisper, lest you profane the holy stillness. So, the second benefit of this holy fear for the Holy One is having a growing reverence, respect and restraint toward all that is holy, like ourselves and each other. Like all of Creation.
I’ve also seen it work the other way: how the humble respect and reverence that God’s World inspires in us can push us toward reverence and submission to God and to God’s Word. Here at Zion, a common theme running through our testimonies is the experience of going to Drift Creek Camp. For some, it’s almost like our Jerusalem Temple. We might even paraphrase another Psalm to say, “If I forget thee, O Drift Creek Camp, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” I believe that the challenge of our fast-paced, highly distracted, technological age, is to become literate again in both of God’s ways of testifying to himself: God’s Word and God’s World. This amazing partnership, between our Christian Education ministries, our Vacation Bible School outreach to the community, and Drift Creek Camp, is like the kinds of interdependence that you find in nature.
A third benefit of this holy fear is that it eliminates other fears. Or at least, it loosens the death grip of the servile fears which the world, the flesh and the devil always seek to put on us. Fear is how we sell products, politics and politicians, but now a new fear stalks the land, the latest social and psychological ailment, a phobia that is increasingly keeping millions of people awake at night, glued to their computers or the cell phones, constantly monitoring their Facebook and Twitter accounts for the latest new trend, the next hot thing. This new condition is called FOMO, spelled F-O-M-O. It stands for “Fear of Missing Out.”
Awash as we are in multiplying options, choices, trends and technologies, we wonder and worry, Should I see this movie or that? Should I go to this concert or that? Should I support this cause or not? Pick the wrong one, and the hashtag trends on Twitter may say to you and everyone else that, “You missed out.” Ashley Madison, the adultery-linkup website, for people looking for affairs, shamelessly advertises its services on even mainstream, supposedly family friendly email servers like Comcast and Google by playing on people’s—you guessed it—FOMO, the “fear of missing out.”
We are no match for the drumbeat of such servile, sinful fear orchestrated by the world, the flesh and the devil. The only remedy is to become enthralled and enticed by better, more good and godly things that we treasure more than anything we might fear missing out on. The Holy Spirit does that in us by replacing worldly, servile fears of pain, punishment and loss, and missing out on…whatever… with a holy, tender and grateful care and desire for everything good and godly. But I need the Word of God to tell me what those holy things are.
Whatever we fear most can become our God. Fear God in the right way, and we need fear nothing and no one in the wrong way, not even death. That’s the third benefit of having a Psalm 19 disposition of holy fear, the fear of the Lord: it eliminates servile fears, or at least cuts them down to size, and so liberates us.
And therefore a healthy, holy fear of God does a 4th thing on our behalf: it enthrones God in his rightful place in our hearts eve as it dethrones all that is not God. And that makes Psalm 19 a rather subversive Psalm. Today it seems pretty tame to us. But in its time of inspiration and composition, 3000 years ago, it posed quite the subversive challenge to ancient Israel’s imperial neighbors and overlords, like Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. They would never have said that the sun or the heavenly bodies can tell us anything about God. They said that the sun and the heavenly bodies are gods! And that their kings and queens and royalty were gods because they were descended from the stars and the sun, that they were the stars and the sun made visible, in the flesh. If the king then wants to round up young men for his army of conquest and march them off to war, or to build himself a pyramid at the cost of the people’s lives, sweat and treasure, or to collect young women for his harem, what right has anyone to object? It’s written in the stars! The royal priesthood said so, when they charted the movements of the heavenly bodies, and discerned their meaning. That’s where today’s astrology comes from.
But the first few verses of Psalm 19 take the ancient words and images of sun and sky worship and turned them on their heads, not to despise nor to depreciate these natural things, but to celebrate them as gifts of God, as works of God. But they are not gods, so don’t fear them like God, the Psalm says. They only testify to the Creator. By the grace of God, they give light to the eyes. But to see God and enlighten the heart and the mind, turn to another light, an even greater one, Psalm 19 says, to the Word of God.
Someone who grew up around worship of the sun, moon and stars, who was briefly even an astrologer, was Aurelius Augustine, of 5th Century Roman North Africa. Though his mother, Monica, was a Christian, he fled her faith in his youth. After he had tried all the wild pleasures that his society had to offer, and every other religion, including astrology, Augustine found himself spiritually spent, hungry and conflicted. He began then to circle back to his mother, Monica’s, faith. Monica, all that time, had been praying avidly for him. He was also deeply affected by the life and friendship of a pastor, the Bishop Ambrose, who counseled him quite wisely. Augustine began to hunger and thirst for the life that Ambrose and his mother, Monica, enjoyed.
But Augustine didn’t want to give up on all the wild pleasures to which he had become addicted, although he knew that they would strangle his emerging faith like weeds if he kept them up. One day, at a point of crisis, knowing that he couldn’t have both God and all his wild, wanton pleasures, wishing that God would free him from them always tomorrow, ready to tear out his hair in desperation over his two conflicted wills, Augustine suddenly overhead a child in the neighboring courtyard. He was singing “Take up and read! Take up and read!” in the rhythm of a song for skipping rope or swinging from a tree. There happened to be a Bible nearby, which he took up. It fell open to Romans 13: 14, and the words, “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” It just seemed too much like those words were written exactly for Augustine, and for his particular time and place and need. His inner storm of conflicting wills ceased as those words ushered him into the calm waters of surrender to God.
Years later, after Augustine had become a bishop, he wrote this about the Bible in his Confessions (which I confess to having read this summer): “We have not come across any other books so destructive of pride, so destructive of ‘the enemy and the defender’ who resists your reconciliation by defending his sins. I have not known, Lord, I have not met with other utterances so pure, which so persuasively move me to confession, make my neck bow to your yoke, and bring me to offer a free worship.” And so the Bible enthrones God by first dethroning God’s good gifts and wondrous works, including ourselves. But after dethroning them, God gives them back to us as gifts to celebrate, enjoy, treasure and nurture, and not as gods that we must fear, or serve like slaves.
“Take up and read,” some unknown child sang behind the wall of an ancient courtyard. A good word for us, too, fifteen centuries later. Take up the book of Creation and see what God’s World says about its Creator. Take up as well the books of God’s Word to see what they say about the One who inspired them. Their words were written just for each and every one of us, just like they were for Augustine. Psalm 19 tells us to read both books. Let them together inspire in us a holy fear, or “the fear of God,” and we need never live in servile, sinful fear of anyone or anything else again.